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"Sex, Sun, and Stigma: The Serpentine Underbelly of Globalized Sex Tourism" by Rithika Padyala

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Sex, Sun, and Stigma: The Serpentine Underbelly of Globalized Sex Tourism

Rithika Padyala, Thomas Jefferson University

Abstract: Sex tourism, a burgeoning international sector, involves travelers seeking sexual services from locals in destination countries. This complex phenomenon blurs the lines between leisure and exploitation, highlighting the way in which politics and ethics can clash. While some see it as a form of fantasy or economic empowerment, others condemn it for exploiting vulnerable populations, such as women and children. This paper aims to discuss the global issue of sex tourism by assessing its causes, consequences, and potential solutions.


An expanding industry, sex tourism has seized the attention of the global community, inciting controversy and debate. Sex tourism is defined as leisure travel with the purpose of purchasing sexual services offered by the locals of tourist destination countries (Ryan & Kinder, 1996). Sex tourists travel to countries where prostitution is legal with a larger pool of sex producers compared to their own countries, where sex work may be limited or socially restricted. The sex tourism industry has been dominated by male tourists from economically developed nations or regions such as the United States, Europe, and Australia traveling to developing countries such as Cuba, Kenya, Thailand, and Cambodia (Wonders & Michalowski, 2014). Some experts, however, have recognized the increasing role that female client-travelers have played in the growth of the industry (Taylor, 2006). The basis of sex tourism remains to be the sexual interaction between a tourist and a local, which is solely dictated by the exchange of money or material goods.

The global phenomenon of sex tourism is a complex, multi-faceted issue that demands awareness. A source of both captivation and abhorrence, sex tourism depicts the convergence between prostitution and tourism (Wonders & Michalowski, 2014). The complexities that arise from the political and moral nuances of sex tourism as a liminal behavior create much debate within the global community (Ryan & Kinder, 1996). Sex tourism is well received when thought of as a form of fantasy and indulgence or a path for economic independence. However, sex tourism is viewed as unethical when faced with the grim reality of exploitation of vulnerable local populations, such as women and children. Judgment on sex tourism must be examined judiciously with a far-reaching lens of its many forms, causes, consequences, and solutions. The social and economic merits are opposed by the unethical practices of sex tourism, which obscure the overall determination of sex tourism as beneficial or exploitative.

Sex tourism flourished with the advent of globalization, facilitating the movement of knowledge, goods, and people across the world. Increasing awareness and contact with new parts of the world is rooted in the rapid acceleration of the tourism industry, which gives rise to the globalization of sex tourism. Tourism has generally stimulated the movement of privileged peoples from industrialized nations into less developed ones in search of new and exotic experiences (Wonders & Michalowski, 2014). A general trend is that many source countries of tourists are Western nations while many destination countries are developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (“Exploring the Industry of Sex Tourism”, 2019). Globalization has promoted sex tourism for centuries. In the modern world, however, the practice continues to be sustained through the rise of social media. Instantaneous digital connections across continents contribute to the dissemination of sex tourism. Perhaps even connecting travelers to locals one-on-one, social media provides a seamless method of personal interaction. A globalized movement, aided by the modern adaptation of online networking, has promoted opportunities for sex work with an expanded pool of sex consumers and producers.

Globalization has given rise to a dominating capitalistic mindset, which has seized the global economy and contributed to the commodification of all aspects of life. The ever-expanding prostitution and tourism industry created a lucrative niche for sex tourism (Wonders & Michalowski, 2014). The consumption of sex tourism is fueled by the desires of privileged consumers, shaping the sexualization of exotic people and places (Omodi & Ryan, 2017). Certain populations, such as women and children in developing nations, are more vulnerable to globalized effects than others. The feminization of global migration results in many women entering new social and economic settings where sometimes the only option for survival becomes sex work. For example, some Southeast Asian women migrate to Japan for better opportunities only to be subjugated to sex work (Leheny, 1995). Whether these women turn to sex work to support themselves and their families or are tricked and forced through the capitalistic greed of tourism management, women are more likely to be at risk of endangerment. Additionally, an annual estimate stated that more than 250,000 people travel overseas to engage in sex tourism with children (IAMAT, 2017). Evidently, the globalized nature of sex tourism endangers vulnerable populations. The overwhelming expanse of sex tourism is a result of a supply and demand framework, intensified by global interconnectivity, primarily affecting women and children in emerging nations.

The cultural and moral implications of sex tourism vary by locale and by the situation. Forms of sex tourism that govern the industry and society’s outlook on it range from romance tourism, prostitution tourism, and child sex tourism. Interpreting the nuances between them is compounded simultaneously by universal expectations but also how societies differ in their behaviors and beliefs on enjoyment, exploitation, and human rights–all factors that influence the global perception of sex tourism.

A form of sex tourism that exemplifies fantasy, wish fulfillment, and social companionship is romance tourism (Ryan & Kinder, 1996). This type of sex tourism is motivated by the same factors as the socially acceptable form of leisure and travel. Both types serve as a desire for something different from the ordinary, which questions people's intolerance of sex tourism. For example, in Kenya, sex tourism is viewed as progressive, enabling women to gain sexual pleasure as well as economic independence (Omondi & Ryan, 2017). This suggests that the condemnation of sex tourism should be considered a result of social conditioning, which can vary across different countries and locales.

Another form of sex tourism, prostitution tourism, is excessively dictated by money, many times giving rise to extortion and coercion of vulnerable people. When money becomes the sole focus, sex tourism becomes dominated by the privileges of industrialized nations. Prostitution tourism is most commonly controlled by men within a capitalistic system that subjugates women and forces sex work upon them due to limited employment opportunities (Omondi & Ryan, 2017). Such subordination of women due to economic constraints is seen in the Netherlands, where discrimination prevents ethnic minorities from employment (Wonders & Michalowski, 2014). Under these forced conditions, sex work is often the only option, trapping many unsuspecting female migrants. The causes and subsequent impacts of prostitution tourism are frowned upon by many. However, it continues to occur throughout the world and differs by practice and extent, making it difficult to address universally.

Lastly, the most exploitative and intolerable form is child sex tourism. The sexual exploitation of minors is especially prevalent due to sex tourism, as perpetrators can travel to countries where children are conveniently obtainable for illegal purposes (Newman et al., 2011). The sexual exploitation of children by tourists and travelers, abbreviated as SECTT, is most common in Asian, African, and South American nations (Kosing & Wilsem, 2022). Countries such as Mexico, Kenya, Thailand, and India have been key players in the international sex tourism industry while also being a destination of SECTT, emphasizing how sex tourism magnifies child sex abuse. Child sex tourism exacerbates the criticism against the industry because of the immoral infringements on children’s rights.

Emerging nations seeking ways to advance their economy leads them to employ sex tourism as a means of capital and global standing. Sex tourism is supported by tourist nations because of the potential for economic advancement as it generates investment in public services, infrastructure, and living standards (Mekinc & Music, 2015). As wealthy, industrial nations expand, they recognize tourist nations’ dependence on sex tourism revenue and take advantage of their flawed legal and economic frameworks (Chemin & Mbiekop, 2015). When capitalist countries are motivated solely by self-interest and invest in the sectors of weaker nations’ economies, they contribute to the nations’ risky dependency on foreign capital, which magnifies the sex tourism industry (Leheny, 1995). The relationship between Japan and Thailand echoes a similar foundation. The Japanese government promoted overseas investment in the tourism industry, especially in Thailand, making the latter more receptive to Japanese interests. Despite Thailand’s initiatives to limit sex tourism due to a growing AIDs threat, they are held captive by the widespread desire of Japanese men to engage in sex tourism in Thailand. In such a sense, foreign investment can be viewed as a proverbial “double-edged sword,” as it can be a source of development but also of power imbalances between tourists from wealthy nations and locals in aid-receiving countries, raising concerns about whether economic advancement justifies the exploitation of developing nations by more affluent ones.

The economic notion that the sex tourism industry is lucrative has influenced people’s perceptions of sex tourism as a viable source of income. In addition to their government’s dependence on the industry for economic growth, individuals themselves seek sex tourism to escape poverty and unemployment. While the exact earnings of sex workers in tourism destinations remain uncertain, it is evident that the industry generates over $20 billion in revenue for these countries, solidifying sex tourism as a profitable sector that offers both individuals and the national economy financial advantages (IAMAT, 2017). Whether sex work is coerced or willingly sought, sex tourism provides a means to a better life. Many people find sex work the most remunerating, preventing them from finding other professions. For example, local Kenyan women offer “romantic safaris” to attract foreign clients (Omondi & Ryan, 2017). The idea that a foreigner can fulfill aspirations of a good life with material comforts motivates them to find a tourist to secure prestige and high class. Kenyan culture emphasizes the importance of a good husband as a key for women to have a good life, encouraging many to rely on romance tourism for economic security and independence.

Power relations that form the basis of sex tourism align with existing cultural patterns that prompt both individuals to seek and offer sex tourism. Cultural outlook forms one’s perception of femininity or masculinity. Because sex tourism is greatly concerned with bolstering power dynamics that arise from cultural definitions of gender, it becomes an attractive option for individuals looking to reinforce or challenge cultural norms. The desire to reinforce traditional conceptions of male dominance and female passivity is seen in the case of many male tourists pursuing sex tourism in developing nations (Omandi & Ryan, 2017). Growth in women’s education and employment opportunities has increased their independence. Women may no longer require a male counterpart’s support or companionship as they have in the past half-century. Gender norms equating masculinity with control over women provoke men, who feel discomposed by changes in power dynamics, to pursue sex tourism as an outlet for power. Moreover, destination countries may be perceived as underdeveloped and inferior, allowing male tourists to feel justified in taking advantage of local women. Therefore, when sex tourism entails a male visitor and a local female, issues of race, gender, and prejudice appear to play a pivotal role in both the origins and outcomes.

Increasingly, the traditional exchange of a male traveler seeking sexual services from a female has been challenged by more local men entering the industry for tourist women. Women’s access to increasing independence, the sexual liberation movement, the opportunity for independent income, and annual leave have all contributed to the female sex tourism industry, with generally European women traveling to African destinations and Canadian and American women traveling to the Caribbean (Bauer, 2014). Reconsidering gender roles within the context of sex tourism can enlighten the causes of female sex tourism as well, which takes advantage of similar power imbalances (Taylor, 2006). Caribbean men, such as those in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, are highly sexualized and attract the likes of affluent women, who use social and economic inequalities to gain sexual advantages. In this sense, themes of racism and the “eroticization of the cultural other” contribute to the prevalence of sex tourism as well (Taylor, 2006). Women who associate colored men with animalistic attributes tend to seek out local men in tourist destinations where male honor is highly sexualized. Perhaps these women derive pleasure from the sense of empowerment they experience in a country that is typically seen as subordinate, which provides a satisfying reversal of traditional norms. Once more, sex tourism transforms into a multi-faceted concern, where the distinction between victimization and exploitation becomes obscured across both genders.

The sexual exploitation of children also, in part, arises from cultural conceptions. Perpetrators rationalize their behaviors by citing their belief that girls mature quicker in destination countries (Mekinc & Music, 2015). Moreover, inhumane notions stemming from centuries of negative stereotyping of these countries may dictate abusers’ beliefs that children of underdeveloped countries are inferior, so sexual exploitation is not morally wrong. By seeking sexual services from children, perpetrators even feel benevolent for financially supporting them (Newman et al., 2011). Perpetrators from the United States describe disturbing accounts of sexual encounters with minors in countries like Colombia and Mexico, often justifying their actions by citing the deprived conditions faced by women and children and even expressing a sense of pride in having supposedly helped them escape poverty. Feelings of superiority and dominance incite tourists to seek sex tourism in nations where men, women, and children are culturally held as inferior and lack protection.

Though sex tourism provides respite from poverty, it contributes to a destructive cycle of economic, psychological, and physical dependence. The implications of widespread sex tourism are that it becomes an easy way of life and diminishes the ability of individuals to pursue other professions (Omondi & Ryan, 2017). For example, local Kenyan women resort to violence and deceit by employing witchcraft to attract wealthy tourists and harm competitors. These women are incentivized to employ such harsh means in order to find a potential husband who will provide for them. For many of these women, a tourist, most often a white man, is what stands between them and a good life. As such, many of these local women employ sex tourism not simply for fast earnings but rather for a relationship that can secure them material comforts and high class. However, psychological dependence on the wealthy foreigner as a savior and means to attain prestige and honor degrades the individual’s sense of self-worth. The consequence of this type of motivator is women becoming dependent on this lifestyle and sacrificing their potential to pursue alternative careers. When money and validation become the sole focus for these individuals, excessive dependence on the profits of sex tourism generates destructive and inhumane behaviors.

The most pressing issue that arises as a result of sex tourism is the conditions of exploited children. Victims of child sex tourism consist of children from impoverished and neglected families, children subject to psychological or physical abuse, and orphaned and homeless children (Mekinc & Music, 2015). For survival and bare means of subsistence, children are forced into sexual exploitation and are pulled into a vicious cycle of violence, disease, and substance abuse (Newman, 2011). It was found that children are more susceptible to AIDs and infection, and the illegality of child sex work makes it much more difficult for children to seek medical treatment (Mekinc & Music, 2015). For instance, an NGO group reported that 50% to 90% of children rescued from brothels in Southeast Asia were infected with HIV (Newman, 2011). The physical, sexual, and mental torment that sexually exploited children are subjected to delegitimizes the sex tourism industry and garners widespread opposition from the global community. Still, child sex tourism continues to be rampant, especially in countries with corruption, organized crime, and inadequate police enforcement. The dire moral and ethical transgressions of child sex tourism render sex tourism treacherous and debilitating for children, in particular.

The various forms, causes, and consequences of sex tourism are not the same in any country or locality, which makes it increasingly difficult for standardized, effective measures to be taken against the illegalities of sex tourism without restricting the freedoms of individuals and economies of nations. Solutions to child sex tourism have taken the lead, endorsed by NGOs, tourist stakeholders, and the governments of destination countries to combat and ultimately eliminate the sexual exploitation of children (Mekinc & Music, 2015). The need for public investment to offer child protection is a must. In India, the National Child Labour Project aimed to remove children from the labor market to protect them from offenders (Chemin & Mbiekop, 2015). Source countries have also enacted extraterritorial child sex tourism laws and organized criminal data on known offenders. The coordinated efforts between source and destination countries will enhance the protection and policing of at-risk people and places. With adequate oversight and funding, the pressing issue of child sex tourism may finally be controlled.

The many factors that simultaneously rely on and shape sex tourism, such as economy, employment, and global patterns, make this issue too elaborate to develop an unequivocal stance. For some, sex tourism is empowering, granting individuals the freedom for self-exploration and independence from financial struggles. For others, sex tourism is a deplorable and exploitative industry that threatens one’s tradition and morality. However, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that there are more negatives than positives associated with sex tourism in the current day. Sexual exploitation, most often leading to human trafficking and forced prostitution, seems to outweigh any economic benefits, either on an individual or sectoral basis, that can be attained from the industry. Having exploited vulnerable individuals and countries, sex tourism can marginalize already disadvantaged populations. If legislators in their respective countries were more cognizant of the local patterns and consequences of sex tourism, they could create effective policies that benefit sex workers and tourists. However, this initiative requires controls on corruption, adequate funding, and helpful governance to be truly successful. It is unrealistic that sex tourism will ever be eradicated, but it can become a more ethical industry, void of violence, abuse, and corruption. When that is achieved, sex tourism can become a socially acceptable form of respite, relaxation, and fantasy.


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